The number of women in politics has always been fairly small – around 5% of world leaders are women – but today even the power the few do hold now appears to be hanging in the balance. As we write, Angela Merkel and Theresa May are still clinging on to the two top spots in Europe but the latter looks likely to step down imminently after a somewhat disastrous attempt to achieve the impossible and negotiate a Brexit deal that is palatable for all. Both face rising opposition from within their own parties and fewer women are following them into the breach. That said, there are some seeking to make waves in the political arena despite the hefty challenges.
With the Tories and Labour going out of favour faster than a Tamagotchi with a flat battery, the news that Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable will shortly hand over the reins presents an opportunity for someone new to take the party forward. Let’s be honest, this is probably the best shot the Lib Dems have at making a real impact on the political landscape in the UK, so selecting the right successor now is going to be vital. Enter Glasgow-born Jo Swinson who has been hotly tipped after fellow female MP, Layla Moran ruled herself out of the race earlier this month. A vocal campaigner on maternity rights and equal pay, Swinson recently made headlines when Brandon Lewis broke their pairing agreement to vote on Brexit, and again when she took her 11 month old son into the Chamber for closing speeches.
She’s widely recognised as being ‘media savvy’ which had us pondering what exactly the golden rules are when it comes to building your reputation and climbing the political ladder, particularly as a woman in this male-centric arena…
Of course, any great leader’s primary concern should be learning to be a great communicator. But what does that mean and how can it be achieved? Women may be on the back foot in many ways, but they have been shown to be more collaborative than men as a rule and this can be used to their advantage. Another win for women is their ability to connect with a room full of people on a more individual level – women excel at this, just look at Michelle Obama for inspiration. By learning to listen to the opinions of others and truly engage with them it is possible to earn the trust of an audience and develop meaningful relationships which, in political terms, will equate to votes.
A few years’ ago Swinson’s accent alone may have been enough to win favour with the electorate, however many brands appear to have dropped Scottish voices from their advertising more recently as the myth that the Scots are more trustworthy has been chipped away by a succession of perceived public political failures. Gordon Brown, Nicola Sturgeon, and Alex Salmond have a lot to answer for…
Having the skill to communicate with clarity, simplifying your message and delivering it as concisely as possible will ensure your audience is engaged throughout and crucially, remembers your message. Concentrating on including pauses and speaking more slowly will also help you to become more aware of using what are known as ‘filler’ words and allow you to filter them out of your speech. It is now common knowledge that Margaret Thatcher used a coach to lower the tone of her voice to sound less shrill when fighting against her male counterparts to become the first leader of the Tories.
In an environment where the male voice is dominant, female voices can be lost in the melee.
It’s also important to own the space! Employ positive body language tactics and assert yourself, regardless of the company you keep. It is not fair, it is in fact quite sexist but women are still judged by different criteria than men. Hence they need to use different tools. Clothes can work against you – I am not sure that Theresa Mays leather trousers and kitten heels worked to her advantage as PM. Would a man have been judged in the same sartorial terms I wonder?
Finally, use all aspects of the media to your advantage – get social, make connections online and off, and know what kind of content is going to appeal to your audience and how they access it (Jo has some way to go to match Vince Cable’s 165k following on Twitter but is closing in on both Instagram and Facebook).
Align yourself with the causes that mean the most to you and of which you have the most knowledge so that you’re able to speak with passion and conviction in any format, whether that be on social media, Question Time, or in a self-penned article for The Guardian.
Let’s hope that, with the right training and support, Jo Swinson can go on to deliver the change that Lib Dem supporters and the UK public as a whole so long to see, and in doing so can inspire the next generation of female politicians to take the plunge. So far with Thatcher & May as the totemic female leaders, in terms of women who history has regarded favourably by the majority of the population, the bar is quite low.